How to Develop a Brand Strategy: a Guide For Startups
When we think about brands, what comes to mind first are global companies who became much more than product or service providers by managing to integrate themselves into pop culture.
When we hear brand names like Zoom, TikTok, or Apple, a lot of associations and emotions enter our minds at once.
Building a brand helps set a company apart from others and build an instant link between the product and a set of values or emotions.
However, while it’s easier for large corporations to invest thousands of dollars in branding, startup managers rarely have that luxury.
Does the inability to build a widely recognizable brand mean company owners should give up trying? Not at all — we just need to be selective about the tools and strategies we use, choosing the cheapest and most effective ones.
This post is a startup owner’s guide to branding that features strategies and tips that will improve your company’s recognition even if it is not an international corporation (yet).
4 Benefits of Planning Branding Early
Startup owners have a lot of daily tasks and worries to juggle — client communication, team management, payroll and documentation handling, and many more.
In such a fast-paced environment, it’s tempting to not spend time on anything that’s not essential to the company’s day-to-day operation, such as branding and marketing.
Having said that, business owners who take their time to create a well-planned branding strategy before or shortly after launching a startup, get a massive headstart compared to competitors who don’t put conscious effort into brand building. Here’s why.
- Branding sets you apart from day one.
Branding tools — logo, website, marketing campaigns, help startup managers build companies with “personalities”. Thus, business owners increase the impact of ads, social media posts, and other types of content by making it easier to remember.
- Branding helps to understand the market.
Competitor analysis is the cornerstone of branding strategies.
However, marketers aren’t the only ones who benefit from using insights gathered after thorough market research. Competitor analysis data helps fuel a lot of important decisions — which product should a business launch, which international markets should it expand in, and many more.
As a result, company owners who treat branding seriously have a much better overall understanding of the market they operate in and can be confident in their day-to-day choices.
- Branding makes a startup appealing to investors.
Although VC firms are smarter than to “judge the book by its cover”, the power of the first impression in the investment field is huge.
That’s why startup owners who know how to design an appealing pitch deck, how to present the vision behind the product and explain why it’s different from alternatives are an attractive investment target compared to company managers who keep telling investors that “they will cross the marketing bridge when they come to it”.
- Branding helps align goals and expectations.
When working on branding strategies, startup owners are encouraged to think about scaling and long-term planning.
That’s why they start asking questions like “What can this protect become in the future?”, “What will the public perception of the brand be?”, and “How can we make sure the offer doesn’t get stale over time?”.
The answers are not easy to find — yet after getting there, you’ll walk out of the meeting room with a clear sense of direction and a well-defined list of long-term goals.
A startup with such a strong strategic backbone has exponentially higher odds of surviving market fluctuation than a business where decisions are made on a whim, without a big-picture view.
Top 5 Branding Elements For Startups
Logos, billboards, and TV ads are poster representations of branding elements everyone is familiar with. However, there are many more branding tools startup managers can use to set their offers apart from competitors — let’s take a closer look at those:
The name of your startup, on its own, is a powerful branding tool. Here are the goals it helps achieve:
- Leave a long-lasting impression: memorable names like Apple, Amazon, or Zoom are easy to keep in mind.
- Describe the offer or the market you operate in, as is the case for Duolingo or Evernote.
- Intrigue a first-time visitor or a customer. Your company’s name is the first thing people see when they interact with the brand — it’s better to make sure the word or phrase you choose evokes curiosity, trust, and other positive emotions.
Other than that, changing brand names mid-way through the startup’s life cycle is a stressful decision. It’s better to brainstorm a good idea at the start of your business journey since you’ll likely stick to it for years.
Brand image is a central idea behind the company, a short description, or a phrase you want customers to associate the brand with. The image of your brand can change depending on the audience you are targeting or as the company scales.
For example, it’s common for startups to enter the market as a “cheap and quick fix” — however, as companies get more recognition, they often transition to the image of a large-scale product or premium, highly selective service provider.
Here are a few examples of startups with a well-defined brand image you can use as inspiration for brainstorming:
- Bumble (dating app) — a ladies-first dating platform.
- Mailchimp (email campaign builder) — a reliable platform for full-cycle email marketing management.
- Bird (eco-friendly scooter manufacturer) — ensuring freedom, mobility, and sustainability.
A brand voice is a style a company uses to communicate with visitors, users, or customers. Similar to how there are no identical human voices, startup owners should make sure their content has a clear and unique “speaking style”.
There are different tools marketing managers use to give nascent companies distinct voices:
- Clear, descriptive adjectives and verbs that instantly deliver the message a company owner wants to transmit.
- Slang words, inside jokes, and pop culture references that are relevant to the target audience.
- The content length, layout, and posting schedules also help create a distinct “speaking style: for a brand.
Here are a few inspiring examples of brands that have unique “voices”:
- Apple cultivates a sense of elitism and belonging to a community in its copy and ad spots.
- Whole Foods uses a lighthearted communication style to promote healthy nutrition habits and encourage shoppers to purchase the company’s products.
- Frank’s RedHot adopted a direct style that establishes the company as trustworthy and honest.
There are nearly 230 million online shoppers in the US alone. Those who don’t purchase online, still rely on search engines to get to know the market and choose the best product available.
These days, a successful startup can’t exist without a mobile app or a website. Since there’s no way around building a webpage, company managers should focus on making the most out of it.
There are different ways to make sure the website reflects the startup’s vision and brand identity — here are a few ideas to adopt:
- Run an on-site blog to share the company’s values in a distinct communication style.
- Include a startup’s logo and a branded palette to the website.
- Use a design that appeals to your target audience — younger users might prefer minimalist layouts while older visitors would likely expect to see sliders or even drop-down menus.
5. Marketing channels
Last but not least, the way you run marketing campaigns contributes a great deal to building a recognizable brand. A fair share of startups managed to build a dedicated following by making the most out of one or a few social media platforms.
Here are a few examples of startups using marketing tools to build powerful brands:
- Hustle is one of the most iconic tech newsletters in the world — thanks to its minimalist design and conversational, witty writing, checking these digests became a long-lasting habit for many startup owners, VC firm teams, and corporation executives.
- MoonPie placed a rewarding bet on Twitter — by writing hilarious viral tweets, the company gathered a strong social media community.
- TechCrunch is a frontrunner in using a Facebook Messenger bot to deliver the hottest tech news to the platform’s readers and social media followers.
5 Steps For Building a High-Performing Startup Brand Strategy
Excellent branding is a low-cost way to place your startup on the target audience’s attention radar. Since building a high-performing strategy from scratch can get confusing, let’s break this ambitious task into a set of manageable steps your team can bring into life tomorrow.
Step 1. Define the target audience
Understanding who you are speaking to is the core strategy to make sure your words and messages are powerful.
That’s why, when building a branding strategy, business owners should first and foremost create a portrait of an average shopper or an app visitor, known in marketing as a customer persona.
To have an overall understanding of what values, interests, and needs your target audiences have, answer the following questions:
- Where do my prospective customers live?
- What do and do not they like?
- What interests do they have?
- What authority figures do my prospective customers have?
- What communication style do they resonate with?
- Which social media and forums do they use?
Step 2. Analyze competitors
After you understand clearly who the influencers in the industry are, it’s time to take a look at how your company’s competitors are building their branding and communication strategies.
In your competitor analysis, try to answer the following questions:
- What values do competitors promote and how well do audiences resonate with them?
- Which marketing channels do they use to distribute these messages? Which of these tools are more effective?
- How are competitors’ branding elements featured on their websites?
- What are the strengths and weaknesses of the branding strategy of your competitors?
Step 3. Work on brand attributes
After a thorough target audience research and competitor analysis, you are armed with the tools needed to create an efficient branding strategy.
A good way to develop a startup’s brand identity is by creating a brand book with the main assets:
- Mission and vision.
- Image and brand identity.
- Logo, palette, and typography.
- Tone and voice.
Step #4. Incorporate branding assets into marketing communication
Having a brand book that features all of your branding assets is helpful since you can share it with investors or partners.
However, to make sure as many people as possible can interact with your ideas and designs, startup owners have to integrate branding elements into day-to-day operations.
Here are some of the ways to do it:
- Add a logo and feature the colors of your brand in your email signature.
- Design custom invoices and document templates to increase brand awareness.
- Use a pre-defined set of fonts and colors on the website and in marketing materials.
- Add brand components to your social media accounts (cover page, post pictures, etc).
- Add a favicon to make it easier to tell your website apart from others when visitors are switching tabs.
Step #5. Create a system for managing branding assets
As a manager of a nascent startup, you might not feel the need to organize logos and marketing materials yet.
However, when the operating time of your startup increases to years, you will see a range of logo tweaks and create new versions of marketing materials so organizing a larger batch of assets will become a problem.
Intelligent business owners should build a powerful asset management infrastructure in advance to make sure it will fit the company’s growing storage demands.
Digital asset management tools are a popular way to store designs among creative teams and startup owners.
These platforms come with a lot of useful tools — fast and efficient file navigation, metadata editing, version control, removing file duplicates, and facilitated asset sharing.
Including DAM in the branding infrastructure allows business owners to:
- Make sure outdated logo and marketing material versions are no longer in use.
- Quickly and securely share assets with investors, partners, and clients.
- Reduce the amount of time needed to approve and review the design.
- Store a large number of assets without having to delete files from the directory.
- Organize the library of branding assets by keeping all drafts of the same file linked together and getting rid of file duplicates.
Although looking into DAM when you don’t have branding assets yet might seem a little too much too soon — in the future, using such platforms spares teams a lot of redundant tasks.
It’s never too early for startup managers to start building a branding strategy.
The insights gathered during market and competitor research will help make data-driven decisions in all areas of startup management, and the understanding of the company’s position on the market offers teams a direction to follow.
There are different branding tools business owners can use to differentiate the company from competitors — namely, a startup’s name, image, voice, website, and marketing communications.
Building a well-performing branding strategy might seem overwhelming — however, the goal becomes once you break it down into actionable steps.
Creating a customer persona, researching the market, developing brand assets, incorporating them into day-to-day processes, and creating a reliable infrastructure for scaling your team’s branding efforts are key steps to creating a steady connection between a startup and its target market.
This post was written by Victoria Golovtseva.
A content marketing manager with 8+ years of experience, currently contributing to Pics.io blog and developing the content marketing strategy of the brand. I’m lucky enough to write for successful companies, raising their brand awareness to a new level.